Alpine and Other Rock Plants

Alpine and Other Rock Plants

Article by Sarah Martin

While it may be immaterial where our plants for the rock garden come from, in so far as the effects which we create with them are concerned, their origin does make a difference in regard to the culture to be given them. For this reason, if for no other, it is desirable to know something of the differences in the several classes of plants available for rock garden use.

But in addition to this utilitarian advantage, there is another of quite equal importance. Even though one may know little, and possibly care less, concerning botany, any plant takes on greater interest when we know something of its associations and its history. In fact, it is impossible to dissociate these from the intrinsic qualities of the plant. The edelweiss of the Alps, for instance, “without which no rock garden is complete,” in the opinion of some, is but a tiny flower surrounded by a bract of white woolly leaves, which would be passed by as a modest weed if it grew by the garden path.

But when one has read of adventurous spirits risking limb and life to find it blooming among the snow and ice of alpine heights, it naturally assumes an interest more than commensurate with whatever beauty it may possess as a flower. The more you know concerning your plants, whether in your rock garden or planted amongst your patio statuary, the better you can provide for them and the greater the joy which they may give you.

Alpine Plants:

An “alp” is a high mountain anywhere, not necessarily, as many people take for granted, one of the range in northern Italy and Switzerland; it comes originally from the Gaelic word for mountain pasture.

True alpine plants are mountain plants from any part of the world, native to those altitudes above the timberline, and extending as far upward as any vegetation can survive. They grow where the natural drainage is exceptionally good, but where their roots are constantly supplied with moisture, mostly from melting snow and ice, and consequently nearly ice cold. The season for growth and flowering is brief, often little over one hundred days.

Logically, the nearer one may approximate these conditions in making a rock garden, the better are the chances of success with this particular type of rock plant. Those who live in northern sections, at comparatively high altitudes, especially where the growing seasons are short and snow remains on the ground for months at a time, have an advantage over the rest of us when it comes to alpines.

Subalpine Plants:

Occasionally, in the catalogs or in rock garden literature, we will find the term “subalpine.” This applies to plants of alpine character which grow somewhat farther down the mountain slopes, below the timber line.

Such are more likely to tolerate some degree of shade, and, while absolutely hardy, not so likely to enjoy standing with their feet in cold water. These plants are ideal for gardens with outdoor water features that provide shade.

Mountain Plants:

Still others there are from the lower mountain regions, foothills, and rocky slopes, which possess many of the characteristics of the true alpine plants, but which naturally are still more amenable to such a home as may be provided for them almost anywhere; insisting, nevertheless, upon exceptionally good drainage, and soil which suits their wild nature, and frequently, in ordinary rich garden soil, either going to one extreme and perishing outright, like the trailing arbutus, or to the other and getting so fat, flabby, and bourgeois that their beauty vanishes, as is the case with the wild columbine.

Moraine Plants:

Plants which, in your catalogs, you find specifically recommended for moraine planting, cannot be expected to give equal satisfaction elsewhere. The combination of an almost perfectly dry surface soil and a more than usually abundant supply of moisture at the roots, is not generally to be found unless there is special provision for it. Planting moraine plants near outdoor water falls is not recommended, due to the need for a dry top soil.

Moraine plants constitute, therefore, a class which the beginner will do well to keep away from, unless he has the means for providing the special conditions they require; even then, it will be better to wait until experience has been gained with plants more easily managed.

Bog Plants:

Most of the bog plants, on the other hand, are very readily handled. They grow in wet places, but not actually in the water, like the aquatics. Note should be made of the fact that there are many alpines and rock plants recommended “for moist situations,” or “moist soil,” which are not bog plants; that is, they will not thrive where there is water standing in the soil, as the genuine bog plants, such as the marsh marigold, or pitcher plant, do.

Many of the bog plants which, in their native locations, are covered with water for several months of the year, will get along nicely in much less moist (but not dry) situations. The native iris and the cardinal flower are examples of these.

The bog garden, however, is not logically a part of the rock garden. Many plants often included in alpine and rock plant lists, which really belong to the bog garden, merely serve to confuse the beginner. If one is starting out to make a rock garden, there is no necessity for wandering frequently or far into the swamps in search of material for it.

About the Author

Sarah Martin is a freelance marketing writer based out of San Diego, CA. She specializes in landscaping, gardening, and enjoys collecting outdoor water features. For an amazing selection of patio statuary and outdoor water falls, please visit

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